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To Be Black in a Green Space

“There’s an African American man, I am in Central Park, he is recording me, and threatening myself and my dog!” Amy Cooper (pictured left) emotionally pleads during her 911 call as she is being recorded in a video. As she speaks to the police dispatcher, she progressively gets more emotional. “I am being threatened by a man in the Ramble [of Central Park]!” The only thing more painful to watch is how her dog is choking due to her frantic grip on its collar. The video ends with Amy placing her leash on her dog and a curt “thank you” by the recorder.

Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (USA Today/Christian Cooper)

Who was the perceived menace Amy was referring to? It was none other than Christian Cooper (pictured right), an NYC birdwatcher (who is actually a board member of NYC Audubon) as well as a Harvard graduate who writes comics for Marvel. He also happens to be a Black man whose danger to Amy was politely asking her to leash her dog in an area where it was mandatory to do so.

There are many ways the confrontation could have happened that perhaps would not have escalated the situation. On one hand, Amy could have just leashed her dog and abided by the park rules and both her and Christian would have gone about their days. On the other hand, Christian could have simply ignored Amy’s minor defiance and there would not have been a situation in the first place. But frankly, neither of those is how it went and to some degree, it is actually important that it wasn’t.

In the wake of tragedies such as Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, this superficial interaction in the park signifies the deeper problem of America that still exists today: racism. Amy knew what she was doing when she emphasized Christian’s race. She had weaponized her whiteness. Imagining how the circumstances could have been avoided is easy, but envisioning how much worse it could have been is much harder to forget. If the police had come, Christian may not have been alive to tell the story. He could have been a statistic, another innocent Black man killed by the cops. If there had been no film, he could have been framed by Amy, posing as a damsel in distress.

Due to the video going viral, Amy had faced many consequences. Her dog had been taken away, she had been fired from her job, and New York City’s Commission on Human Rights had launched an investigation on her. She released an apology, claiming she was not racist and that she felt that she was in danger, but also understanding the weight of her actions. Christian forgave her, hoping that the apology was sincere and that people would take this as a lesson.

The reality is, the video highlights the fears a Black person could have in any public space. The color of their skin is marked by fear to outside eyes and as a result, they must adjust accordingly. The mundane day-to-day activities (such as asking a question) can lead to a confrontation that they are expected to stay calm during. Black parents are forced to have tough conversations with their young children on how they must be careful in these interactions, dealing with innocent questions of why people would have any reason to judge them.

The way Black people are looked at in public extends to how they are looked at in a green space. It is no wonder that African Americans are the least likely to go to parks due to feeling unsafe. People should be going to parks to enjoy nature and time with another, not where someone feels unsafe. A part of environmental advocacy that must take place is working with communities to engage them. We have to ensure that parks are safe spaces for everyone rather than just one demographic. We would never want what happened to Christian Cooper to happen to anyone else, especially a person of color.

There is a silver lining. Firstly, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other legislators have pushed for a bil penalizing false 911 calls that report crimes based on race, gender, or religion. Punishment could face one to five years in prison, which is in accordance with the hate crime statute. There also seems to be quite a bit of support for it. In addition to that, we are in the midst of something momentous in history where people, not just Black, are beyond exhausted from such treatment. Many people are rising up now, with daily protests all over the country. They are battling systemic racism and are not stopping, regardless of the police violence against them. Officers are tear gassing protesters and shooting rubber bullets directly at them. Some media is focusing on the looting and violence that mars the peaceful movements. But that will not stop the dissenters. They will fight until justice is served.


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